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... fertile costa d'alto monte pende Paradiso 11:45
The Umbrian birthplace of Francis, the town of Assisi, rests on the eastern flank of Monte Subasio. The town is situated about one hundred miles northeast of Rome and almost an equal distance south of Florence. Today's visitors almost unanimously praise its beauty because of how much of the medieval town seems intact and because of the pinkish hue of the stone, hewn from the local quarries in and around Mount Subasio that broods over the city. Despite the tour buses and the inevitable souvenir shops there is something, well, quite Franciscan about the place. It was not accidental that the great interreligious prayer service at which Pope John Paul II participated in 1986 was held in Assisi. Pilgrims and visitors of every religious persuasion see this lovely Umbrian town and the saint who has made it famous as their own.
Assisi is a place with a long history. The Etruscans had settled the area long before the advent of Christ, as later did the Umbri from whom the area gets its name, and later still the Romans. The most distinguished resident of the city before Saint Francis was the Roman poet Sextus Propertius, born fifty years before the birth of Christ and dying circa 16 B.C.E., who occasionally hymned the beauty of the area in his poetry, although he was best known for the passionate love poetry addressed to his mistress, a poetry erotic enough to bear comparison with Catullus. Centuries later Francis, of course, would also praise a woman he loved - Lady Poverty - but with a quite different vocabulary.
Assisi has its fair share of Roman remains visible to this day, but none more conspicuous than the little temple of Minerva, now a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, that sits in the center of the town's main square. The temple was famous enough to merit a side trip in 1786 by Goethe who, on his way south, stopped to admire the wonderful lines of the temple while showing at the same time absolutely no interest in either Francis or the art inspired by him that adorns the basilica where the saint's body rests. In fact, from his carriage, Goethe glanced at the basilica of St. Francis on his way to the town square and pronounced it a Babylonian pile. He then hurried on to Perugia, the ancient enemy of Assisi. Goethe's attitude was common enough in the eighteenth century.
When Francis was born in 1181 (or, by some reckonings, 1182) there were four architectural monuments that symbolized, each in its own right, the highly stratified social tensions in the town. High above the city was the fierce-looking citadel known as La Rocca Maggiore, the traditional seat of power of the old feudal aristocracy which, at the time Francis was born, housed a German agent of the Holy Roman Emperor. In the town itself the old cathedral (duomo) dedicated to the Virgin was the church of the powerful aristocratic bishop who held, in the name of the church, about half the lands in the area. Curiously enough, Assisi had a second cathedral, dedicated to its fourth-century martyred saint, San Rufino, built with the aid of the new class of rich mercantile interests who competed in prestige and power with the older feudal lords and the bishop who represented aristocratic interests. Between the canons of San Rufino and the bishop there were strained relations. The fourth center of power emerged during the lifetime of Francis: the city hall (palazzo del commune) that represented the growing secular and political power of the urban rich and a sign of the growing sense of civil life in medieval Italy. Below the "centers of power" represented by these architectural monuments was, of course, the roiling sea of beggars, day laborers, craftsmen, local traders, farmers, and herdsmen who made up what Francis was to call the minores, the little ones who stood economically and politically beneath the majores who endowed the cathedrals of the day and negotiated their business in the city hall.
That pinkish hue to the stones quarried from the mountain which so enchants visitors today masks the violence that was part of life in Francis's own time - violence of vendettas, street brawls, warring families, grotesque forms of public torture or execution, and class struggles. The grandees of the city would build towers at their homes not only to show power but also as fortresses to protect them when the inevitable vendettas would break out. It is against that aura of urban violence that we must understand the Franciscan cry of "Peace!"
It was into this complex but relatively small world, slowly evolving from a feudal to a mercantile culture, that Francis was born. Like all Assisians of his class he was baptized shortly after his birth, with the name "John," at the cathedral font. His mother's name was Pica (other sources say Giovanna) and his father, Pietro da Bernadone. Although his baptismal name was John, his father renamed him Francesco (the "little Frenchman"), most likely as a tribute to France where Pietro frequently visited in pursuit of his business in the cloth trade. It was not a common name at the time.
Some scholars have tendered the suggestion that the family may have been Jewish by ancestry, a theory resting largely on the slender thread of evidence that the early biographer Thomas of Celano seems to deprecate the Christian roots of the family and because Pietro was in the cloth trade and a reputed moneylender - common occupations of the Jews of the time. There is no consensus on this point, which is very much a minority opinion, asserted but hardly proved.
Francis was born into the reasonably well-off mercantile class who identified their fortunes with the city hall and with the newer cathedral of San Rufino, although Francis probably was baptized in the old cathedral since San Rufino was not quite complete when he was born. This merchant group would find itself at loggerheads with the old feudal aristocracy. Most likely, his father applauded the siege of the fortress of La Rocca, when Francis was barely in his late teen years, with the resulting expulsion of the feudal lords resident there and the destruction of their fortified towers and castles, and it is equally probable that he contributed to the forces that did the deed. That siege, in 1198 and 1199, saw the expulsion of Duke Conrad of Urslingen and his followers with the result that Assisi now came under the political patronage of Pope Innocent III.
Interestingly enough, among the nobles who fled Assisi was the Offreduccio family of the future Saint Clare. It is clear that Francis grew to maturity at a time when his kind of family was very much in the ascendent and very much antagonistic to the aristocrats with their prideful sense of nobility and their unearned wealth. Within a few years, however, the aristocrats would return and the merchants would have to help rebuild the noble towers and palazzi, which explains how Clare got back to Assisi from her place of exile in Perugia.
Francis was raised in relative wealth. His education was, as far as we can tell, meager and local. Years later Francis himself, in his Testament, describes himself as unlettered (idiota), which means only that he had precious little formal education. That he could write we know because we possess a few autographs. That he knew some French (Learned from his father? On travels with his father to France for market reasons? As part of the musical culture of the time?) is stated in some of the early recollections of Francis that have him singing in that language. There are charming portraits of him later in life walking through the woods, pretending to play a violin with two sticks he picked up, singing in French.
Most of his education came probably at the hands of the priests of his parish church of San Giorgio where he learned some Latin, most likely using a Psalter as a textbook, and some skill in writing. Writings from his own hand show little Ciceronian polish. He probably picked up some commercial skills in computation from working in the cloth trade with his father. There is no evidence that he yearned to go to Bologna for the university that was then the place for upwardly mobile young Italian men to attend because of its famous law faculty. His world was the practical and local world of business.
One thing all the early legends agree on is that in his youth he was far from a model of piety or virtuous living. His earliest biographer, Thomas of Celano, in his first life of the saint says bluntly that he wasted his life from the time of his childhood until he was twenty-five, charging him, specifically, with a love of frivolity, a penchant for extravagant clothing, and for being a "squanderer of his property." Interestingly enough, Thomas blames this dissolute style of life on Francis's parents who "reared him to arrogance in accord with the vanity of the age." Thus, Thomas concludes," by long imitating their worthless life and character he himself was made more vain and arrogant." In his second life of Francis, Thomas would have him as a glutton and street brawler. Later biographers would add further salacious details to this catalog: he loved lewd songs, pranks, mindless vandalism, and so on. Only Saint Bonaventure, writing an "authorized" life much later in the thirteenth century, softens the image of a wild youth by emphasizing his innate generosity and moments of Christian passion. In the process, the negative picture of his own family also gets softened.
Not to put too fine a point on it: Francis seems to have been a typical indulged, wealthy, spoiled, and thrill-seeking adolescent who was indulged by a family who could afford to look with a benevolent eye on the peccadilloes of youth. What the early biographers describe, with the paradigmatic example of Augustine's Confessions in the back of their mind, was the portrait of a young man whose life was spent without aim or purpose but supported by a family who could afford to underwrite his whims. Francis seems to have done all the things that adults deplore in the youth of today: waste time and money; be preoccupied with fancy clothes which had to be in the latest mode; run around with the wrong crowd; chase after women; and take an interest in subversive music - in his case, the love songs (chansons) introduced from France.
When he was in his late adolescence Francis seems to have begun to grow out of this feckless life. The early authors do not seem very precise about how this change in his life came about. Some mention an extended period of illness. In a brief war in the fall of 1202 between Assisi and its traditional enemy from Etruscan times, the city of Perugia, Francis evidently went to war with his fellow bravos but ended up captured and held in the prison of Perugia's city hall. More than likely Francis, as a child of wealth, proved a fine bargaining chip in a ransom negotiation. After nearly a year,his father ransomed Francis, who was by then ill.
It goes without saying that periods of enforced recuperation from illness or times of enforced isolation figure large in the slow conversion of some people. Centuries later, healing from a battle wound was instrumental in the conversion of Ignatius of Loyola, and one could fill a small library with books written by persons who were imprisoned for a long period of time who use their silence and solitude to map a new way of life. Such books include Boethius's Consolations of Philosophy, written in Pavia in the late Roman period; the extraordinary letters written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who languished in a Nazi prison; and the prison writings of the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci who suffered from the enforced hospitality of the Fascist government of Italy.
All of the early authors agree that, after his rescue and recuperation from whatever illness he suffered, Francis decided to take up arms as a knight. Along with a friend he left his family home in Assisi bound for Apulia in the south of Italy, where he intended to put himself under arms with a lord named Walter of Brienne who was raising an army as part of the militia of Pope Innocent III. After only a day's journey to Spoleto, however, something happened that caused Francis to return to Assisi a changed man. What happened has never been clear, but whatever it was it deterred him from going off for military fame. It may well be that he heard of the death of Walter of Brienne while he was traveling south to Apulia. The records do not show any "road to Damascus" conversion dreams, but he clearly repented of his plan for military glory. His biographers, naturally enough, read this incident as a kind of premonition, which they tout as prophetic dreams of victory that would change him into a new, spiritual kind of warrior.
However much Francis may have turned his back on the chivalric ideal, he did not fail to learn powerful lessons that came from the romance tradition that praised it. More than one scholar has noted that the chivalric ideal held in high esteem two important virtues. The first was liberality (largesse) by which the knight gave freely and abundantly of himself and his goods. The second was courtesy (cortesia), a favorite word of Francis. By courtesy he did not mean manners but a certain gentle way of relating to the other. Saint Thomas Aquinas would later discuss this virtue of courtesy using the Latin word affabilitas, weakly translated into English as "affability." The word cortesia shows up frequently in the mouth of Francis - most famously, perhaps, when later in his life his eyes were to be cauterized with white hot irons. He looked at the physician's instrument and said, "Brother Fire, I pray you, be courteous to me." It is the rare poet, G. K. Chesterton once remarked, who remembers his poetry in a moment of dire danger.
Francis himself, in a rare moment of autobiographical testimony, treats his change in his life in a much more abbreviated fashion. In the beginning of his Testament, written a few years before his own death,F rancis opens with these laconic words:
... for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers. And the Lord himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body. And afterwards, I delayed a little and left the world.
While the early writers attribute a number of steps by which Francis left the world to become a man of penance, the saint himself singles out his changed attitude toward lepers. There is a reported incident in the early legends that he met a leper while out riding his horse and gave the leper some alms out of a sense of pity.
Excerpted from Francis of Assisi by Lawrence S. Cunningham Copyright © 2004 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission.
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|Francis of Assisi: A Modest Foreword||vi|
|1.||Beginnings at Assisi||1|
|2.||Francis and His Companions||30|
|3.||Rome and Beyond Rome||48|
|4.||Francis and the Rule(s) of the Lesser Brothers||65|
|5.||The Stigmata of Saint Francis||79|
|6.||Saint Francis and the Love of Creation||92|
|7.||The Final Years||108|
|9.||A Reading Essay||140|
|Appendix||The Prayer of Saint Francis||146|